Academic journal article Style

Esthetic Qualities, Conventions, and Aspect-Switching: Medieval Hebrew Poetry in the Perspective of Modern Theories of Reading

Academic journal article Style

Esthetic Qualities, Conventions, and Aspect-Switching: Medieval Hebrew Poetry in the Perspective of Modern Theories of Reading

Article excerpt

The Hebrew secular poetry written in medieval Spain adheres quite strictly to predetermined conventions of genre. One prominent genre of this poetry is contemplative poems. Dan Pagis made a distinction within this genre between two contrasting conceptual positions that give rise to two groups of poems, "dark poems of fate" that speak about man's futile existence and make no mention of consoling ideas such as an afterlife and the soul's immortality, and "poems of admonishment and faith," that also proclaim the vanity of human existence but also raise the possibility of escape, by adhering to the path of morality and faith, that holds out the promise of everlasting life for the soul (233). The poems of admonishment and faith, unlike the dark poems of fate, are thus similar in spirit to sacred poetry.

Pagis's distinction is revolutionary; so revolutionary, in fact, that it was not rejected out of hand only because it was proposed by such a prominent scholar in the field. Because the poems are read in the knowledge that their composers were religious men, there is a tendency to interpret even the darkest motifs as possessing a positive religious aim. Pagis himself was apparently aware of the difficulty which his proposal created, since he makes the following comment there: "When we examine each poem separately we must therefore distinguish between a general conceptual criterion associated with cultural history--the beliefs and opinions of the period in question and of the poet as a believer--and a literary conceptual criterion that applies to each poem individually" (236). If we read these poems against the background of the period and of the poet as a man of faith we could provide the dark poems of faith with a religious conclusion as well, and interpret them in the spirit of the poems of admonishment and faith. However, if we examine them using a literary criterion that is applicable to each poem as an individual unit we will not be able to obliterate the difference between the pessimistic spirit of the dark poems of fate and the optimistic spirit of the poems of admonishment and faith (236). Furthermore, as will be pointed out at the end of the article, even the matter of "cultural history" or "the spirit of the times" is not unambiguous.

One of the motifs that recur in Hebrew poetry from Spain, in particular in contemplative poetry, is youth and old age. This motif has different meanings in different intertextual contexts. As we shall see below, in the context of personal sacred poems and secular poems of admonishment and faith youth is condemned; it is perceived as a time of silliness, as a metonymy for a superficial existence and a pursuit of vain things. Old age, on the other hand, is praised in these poems, as a rewarding time of clarity that represents a rational (not instinctive), ethical, and, religious existence. In the dark poems of fate youth and old age have the reverse meaning; here youth is praised as representing the best time in a man's life, a time whose all too quick passing is the cause of Man's tragic fate, and whose loss is bitterly mourned. Accordingly, old age in these poems is perceived, explicitly or by implication, as a man's end, as death, so its meaning is purely negative.

These contradictory views of youth and old age are usually expressed in distinct genres or sub-genres, as noted above. In light of this, Hanagid's contemplative poem "God Blesses Old Age" is a complex poem that transmits an ambivalent attitude towards youth and old age which the text itself does not disambiguate; it is only in association with changing intertextual connections that an unambiguous view can arise, to one side or the other.

In order to be able to foreground the complexity of "God Blesses Old Age" we shall first discuss another contemplative poem by Shmuel Hanagid, "When You Recall the Days of Youth":

1. When you recall the days of youth, towards them / your heart roars and shouts like a lion

Asking that all your days be like them / but you will not find like them afterwards. …

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